Tony Curtis

Posted May 11th, 2007 by Ben

I’m in Margate shooting interviews. The sky and sea are bands of grey and the empty hulk of Dreamland peers forlornly onto the shore. The tide comes in quickly like a sudden change of mind and the whole town feels like it’s just about to slip into the sea. Last night we stayed in the superb Walpole Hotel Museum which is the first Hotel Musuem I’ve ever stayed in. It’s also the first time I’ve had a ride in a brass elevator. In principle it’s been frozen since 1928 but it’s chaotic charm is more that of a really good bric a brac shop. Like all good museums though, like the sublime and now sadly obliterated Bleak House Dicken’s Museum further round the coast in Broadstairs, there is an undertone of insane despair. It’s a place clearly driven by a love for the past, a love for a certain moment in the history of the English coast and like all unrequited loves this slowly hollows you out. It’s a very nice hotel, with good food, good beds and a full size snooker table hiding in the basement but there is something of the Marie Celeste about the scattering of diners in the dining hall and something about the pile of stuffed toys lurking beneath the piano in the foyer that feels like after all these years the place is finally losing it’s grip.

We arrive on the pier to set up our camera and track and find a pair of guys are fishing in exactly the spot we’re wanting to use. Rhys, my producer, wanders over and says that in about an hours time we’ll be shooting and would it be OK if, when we shoot, they move. “Yes of course” says the younger man, a podgy black South African who, it later turns out, is studying aviation management at university near by. “Ah well see no, it’ll cost you” says his companion. Tall, bulky, forty-ish, unkempt and with a can of beer clutched in his hand like a life buoy it’s clear from his eyes that he knows his rights and is not going to give up his fishing spot without a fight. “Ten pounds” he says, clearly also aware that his position is not as strong as it could have been. “Are you film people?” He asks, wobbling slightly and moving too close to Rhys. “No”, lies Rhys “Well you’ve got a camera, so you’re film people, so you’ve got to pay us.” he reasoned triumphantly before adding “Five pounds. Each.” to finally undermine his one-sided bartering.

We don’t pay him. Instead I wander back to the van and wait with Oli and the others for the men to go away and the rain to stop. Neither event happens. Instead the drunk man leaves his rod and wanders over too. His name is Tony Curtis. It was Lesley Curtis but he changed it. His face is ruddy and puckered, his hair lank and flapping and his teeth lopsided and largely missing. Tony Curtis does not suit him. It doesn’t even seem quite fair. The drink makes him especially susceptible to the wind, leaving him wobbling and rocking in the gusts like a flag on the beach. He makes some astonishingly racist comments and then admits that his fishing companion is his only real friend in Margate. He warns us all that we should steer clear of drugs and then later tries to sell me some temazipam. He is a mess and a mass of contradictions, by turns childish and pitiable, then repugnant and stupid. I’m not sure I believe a single word he says except for the fact that he recognises me.

After staring at me on and off for a good few minutes his little eyes narrow further and he gestures toward the yellow badge that has been pinned to my coat for the past four or five years “I know you,” he says “I’ve seen you before. In London. I’ve seen your stupid fucking coat. Mind you, you’ve all got ’em. St.Christopher’s Place. You was filming in St.Chistropher’s place when I was homeless. I’ve seen you before.”

Were this a good novel this revelation would lead onto something. Like him being my protector or my father or a murderer I helped escape when I was a child. However, Tony proves that life isn’t a good novel. He’s now living in a cheap hotel on the coast and is struggling to live on his giro. Today he’d been in court for nicking a packet of bacon and was forced to pay £160 fine and £40 costs. He is trying to straighten himself out though by being here and not being homeless in London, especially since he admits he is an alcoholic and the London police are very hard on people who drink in the streets. I didn’t know this but apparently anyone found drinking in the street is liable for an £80 on the spot fine, which is obviously tough on a homeless alcoholic…

He’s been largely homeless for sixteen years though he did make a fair amount of money sticking prostitute’s cards in phone boxes. Apparently this earnt him about £400 a night from six or seven different pimps and with this money he used to stay in hotels and sleep with the girls he helped to advertise. Then he got nicked for this and is currently still under an ASBO that bans him from every phone box in the country. He puts his homelessness down to the break-up of his marriage. “I came home and found her in bed with my best mate,” he says, the wind whipping apologetic noises from all our lips “So I battered him with a baseball bat and got four years inside.”

His life isn’t the stuff of a good novel, or even a good short film. It’s a stupid series of unconnected indulgences and misfortunes and watching him leaning into the spray and grinning as he flicks his fishing line out into the grey sea I can think of nothing but the amazing aimless waste of his existence. Were he happy it’d almost make sense, but he’s not. Life and the police have driven him to the periphery of our world, dangling a hook off the end of the country, struggling with addictions, his back pain, the sleepless pacing of the man in the room above him, the constant attention of the police and tide like threat of being killed by the bored kids of Margate “Last week this Dutch bloke was sitting out on the bowling green up the way, and these guys came along – kicked him to death. On the green. Some other guy got his throat slit a few months back too. You gotta watch yourself in this place guys. You gotta be careful you know what I mean?”

He gives a cheery wave goodbye and staggers off down the peer, another piece of the landscape about to sink into the sea.

  1. Mat Davidson

    great blog, ben.

  2. simon cameron

    his is just in case you think that no-one reads your blog. You should make a little short about Tony but it would have to end with someone going to heaven and that would cost.
    All best
    simon

  3. Simon Cameron

    The previous message started with a T !

  4. jo

    beautiful piece of writing ben.

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